Tea is the second most consumed drink across the world, after water. So, there are high chances that you are a tea-drinker, whether occasional or full-time. It’s interesting to learn how this tasty and refreshing beverage ends up into your cup. As such, this article will track all that journey, from fresh tea leaves to how they are picked and processed to produce ready-to-brew products.
How does a tea leaf look?
Tea leaves are harvested from a plant called Camellia sinensis. The shrub of this plant can grow as high as nine metres, but it is normally pruned to about one or two metres to ease its cultivation and for increased leaf production. The mature tea leaves are thick and dark green – their edges are serrated giving an attractive look to the eye.
A tea leaf also has a taper to sharp tip and highly likely to have a hairy underside. It can grow to a length ranging from 5 centimeters to 10 centimeters. Tea leaves grow alternately as opposed to growing directly across from each other on the stem of Camellia sinensis.
Most people think that tea leaves are exclusively for making beverages. However, tea leaves can be eaten, just like the tea flowers. In fact, some people find those leaves very delicious. But in most cases, tea plants are cultivated to produce leaves for making brews.
Tea leaves are picked from tea shrubs as many times as possible per year. The more they are harvested, the more the tea plant produces new leave shoots. In some places such as North-Eastern India and North of China, tea leaf picking is seasonal, depending on the prevailing weather conditions, in other regions such as Indonesia, Kenta, China and Sri Lanka, the harvesting is done throughout the year.
Although machines designed to harvest tea were recently innovated and have been in use, the traditional and most commonly used method is hand-picking. Machine harvesting is mostly adopted by largescale tea producers while most, if not all, small scale farmers use hands because a harvesting machine is too pricey for them to afford. The hand-picked tea leaves tend to maintain higher natural sweetness as compared to those that have been harvested by a tea-harvesting machine.
Although machine tea harvesting is much faster than using hands, on the downside, the method exposes more surface area of the leaf to harsh elements like sun. This is because the machine harvests and chops them simultaneously. Consequently, the final tea processed from the chopped leaves releases bold and dark hints very quickly in their first brewing. On the other hand, the whole hand-picked leaves take a longer time to release their fullest flavors, mostly in their second or third brewing.
Not every lead of the tea plant qualifies to be used to make a quality brew- only the top-most ones (mostly two and a bud) and a portion of the stem to which they are attached are picked. The few top-most leaves (three to five) on a tea plant stem, excluding the stem, are referred to as “flush”. A flush having two or three leaves is known as the “golden flush” as it is the most superior in terms of quality when it is processed for tea brew.
The processing of tea involves the following steps:
After harvesting, either by hands or using a tea-plucking machine, tea leaves are then softened through withering. They are placed on a mat, preferably of fabric or bamboo construction, or in special withering troughs and left there for a couple of hours or a day to wither. The withering period depends on the prevailing weather as well as the leaves’ humidity content.
After withering, the leaves will have lost approximately 30% to 50% of their moisture content, becoming flaccid and pliable enough for shaping and rolling, both of which are part of further tea leaf processing. Besides, the loss of water causes leaf cell wall breakdown, triggering oxidation.
Upon proper withering, the leaves shed off their natural grassy aroma and their caffeine level increases. They also develop flavor and aroma compounds. Withering is deemed complete when the leaves lose a certain percentage of their moisture, depending on the involved tea variety and their original moisture content level.
If withering is skipped and the leaves undergo the other heating steps, the resulting product will be something that looks like cooked veggies instead of dry tea leaves. The main purpose of withering the leaves is to make them supple enough for top-quality and dry tea manufacturing.
Disruption, or “leaf bruising” or leaf maceration” involves rolling, twisting or crushing of tea leaves. The choice of a disruption method depends on the desired form of the final tea. This process aims at promoting and speeding up oxidation and is particularly applicable to selected tea types including Oolong, black and pu-erh teas.
Even and thorough disruption comes in handy for the production of a consistent tea batch. As such, a relevant machine is necessary. Due to oxidation, tea leaves develop a new taste profile upon undergoing this step.
Some teas such as green and oolong require oxidation. Not all people like green tea, we find a smaller percentage with a different taste. The tea leaves that are intended for the production of oxidized tea are laid out on special troughs or mats and left to wither.
Due to exposure to the atmosphere, the leaves experience enzymatic reaction which breaks down their chlorophyll, turning them brown in color. The duration of oxidation varies from one case to another, depending on the environment’s temperature and humidity as well as the qualities that the final tea is expected to have. Oxidation makes tea leaves to develop an array of taste and aroma compounds.
Fixation involves heating tea leaves moderately to deactivate their oxidative enzymes. This step aims at stopping the oxidation of the leaves at a particular desired level, depending on the targeted quality of the final tea. Fixation also gets rid of the unwanted tea leaf fragrances.
After fixation, the tea is dried to eliminate any residual moisture that might be remaining in them, to increase their shelf-life. However, drying can change the tea flavor significantly.
Tea drying can be done in various ways such as panning, air-drying, baking and sunning. This step should be performed carefully to prevent the leaves from getting overcooked. At this stage, the tea is ready for sale and long-term consumption.
Those are the major steps that tea leaves go through before they get into your local shop or store. And because you’ve learnt that much in a few minutes’ record, grab your favorite cup of tea, take a deep sip in style as a way of thanking yourself for being a nugget wiser.